Church-State Relations in America and Europe

Author: ZENIT


Church-State Relations in America and Europe

Part 1

Robert Kraynak on America's Civil Religion

HAMILTON, New York, 25 MARCH 2005 (ZENIT)

Alexis de Tocqueville admired the way Americans were able to combine the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty in the 1830s.

Robert Kraynak, professor of political science at Colgate University and author of "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World" (Notre Dame), explains in the first part of this three-part interview how civil religion prevented a totally secular democracy from arising in America for nearly 200 years, and how it might be a good model for other nations.

This is the first of a three-part interview.

Q: Recently, Cardinal Ratzinger described the American model of church-state relations as more hospitable to religious truth and institutions than European models. What features of the American model might be more hospitable to religion?

Kraynak: The American model of church-state relations was best described by Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" more than 150 years ago. He expressed his admiration, much like Cardinal Ratzinger today, for the way Americans were able to combine the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty.

The crucial point for Tocqueville was the distinction between laws and customs. By law, Americans separated church and state; but in their customs or mores, Americans insisted on a prominent role for religion in public and private life. This meant Americans rejected the model of Great Britain, which established a national Church of England, and the practice of regional princes in Germany, who gave legal support to their own denominations.

By rejecting state establishment, Americans never experienced the problems of clerical power and were able to develop a robust pluralism where the various Christian churches pursued religious orthodoxy as voluntary associations on roughly equal terms, although reformed Protestant churches had a historical advantage.

While favoring voluntary worship, Americans also believed that religion had a public role in promoting republican virtue. Hence, they developed a nondenominational civil religion that was expressed in the Declaration of Independence's doctrine of God-given natural rights — the belief that liberty derived from "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" and that inalienable rights were endowments of the Creator.

This republican religion was later expressed in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which said that "this nation under God" will enjoy a new birth of freedom — a sentiment also echoed in the Pledge of Allegiance and in countless public statements connecting the blessings of American freedom with God's providence and judgment.

For nearly 200 years, this civil religion prevented a totally secular democracy from arising in America, while allowing and even protecting a deeper piety based on the revealed truths of Christian faith in the many Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches of America.

American piety is thus a special blend of three elements: the disestablishment of religion, a republican civil religion of God-given natural rights, and pluralism in the pursuit of Christian orthodoxy.

Q: A recent article in the New York Times described the strong collaborations between Christian and non-Christian politicians in Italy. Some European states even subsidize the Church. Why might Cardinal Ratzinger think the United States is a better model?

Kraynak: In comparing attitudes to religion, Cardinal Ratzinger reportedly said that "from many points of view the American model is better. ... Europe has remained bogged down in caesaro-papism." I think Cardinal Ratzinger meant that a lingering Christian establishment in Europe may be holding back a renewal of spiritual life that could be unleashed by voluntary religious participation and pluralism as in America.

Italy, for example, looks like it has state-sponsored Catholicism with the government's historic ties to the Christian Democratic Party, public schools that have crucifixes in classrooms, the Pope living next door and Christian art and churches publicly supported everywhere. But the people seem to lack religious zeal and have disregarded Catholic teaching in legalizing divorce, abortion and gay marriage, as well as in their alarmingly low birthrates.

The same is true of England and the Scandinavian countries: officially Anglican or Lutheran but practically indifferent or hostile to Christianity — and much more openly anti-Christian than Italy, which still has an affectionately pro-Catholic feel.

France is the extreme case in embracing a totally "laicized" state — enforcing a ban on all religious displays in public schools and all references to God by public officials. This is state-sponsored secularism that also suppresses religious vitality.

Cardinal Ratzinger looks at most European nations — he could have mentioned Canada as well — and he sees the worst possible combination of historical residues of Christian establishment and utter indifference to Christian faith; a post-Christian world that would not even allow a reference to the Christian heritage of Europe in the Constitution of the European Union.

By comparison, the American situation looks relatively healthy: higher rates of church attendance and professions of faith — although secular forces in the U.S. judiciary, universities and the media are trying to create a secular America just like Europe and Canada. And one cannot forget that the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations in America have been rocked by scandals and divisive battles that have damaged the faith.

Even if we grant the relative superiority of the American condition today — which I am prepared to do — the question Cardinal Ratzinger leaves unanswered is whether Europe could be saved by adopting some features of the American model, such as disestablishment and pluralism, without possessing other vital elements — namely, a civil religion of God-given natural rights and a belief in Christian orthodoxy.

I think that a nondenominational civil religion is feasible for Europeans to adopt as a basis for human rights. Even the French could come to see that their historic commitment to "the rights of man" is better grounded in the belief that humans are made in the image of God rather than in the skeptical reason of the French Enlightenment.

But the quest for religious orthodoxy — for ultimate religious truth — seems to be dying or dead in Europe today: Europe looks like a dying civilization in which the highest and noblest aims of man have been forgotten or rejected as dangerous. This may be an overstatement, but there is something different about the European and American attitudes to religious truth. ZE05032521

Part 2

Robert Kraynak on the Different Paths of Development

HAMILTON, New York, 26 MARCH 2005 (ZENIT)

European countries may appear to be more in line with Church teaching on many issues, but their motivation is much different, says a political scientist.

Robert Kraynak, professor at Colgate University and author of "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World" (Notre Dame) shared with ZENIT how the United States and Europe have taken different paths in church-state relations and what roadblocks the respective nations have faced.

Part 1 of this three-part interview appeared Friday.

Q: Why have church-state relations developed differently in the United States and in Europe since the 17th century?

Kraynak: The paths of America and Europe leading to the present condition have overlapped and diverged in crucial respects. Both were shaped by the major currents of modernity that produced powerful liberal democracies with dynamic industrial economies; they also have a common alliance in NATO and shared commitments to world organizations such as the United Nations.

But the paths taken in Europe have been more violent and exhausting than in America — leaving an older and more tired European civilization that is skeptical of grand causes and claims of ultimate truth.

For example, the Europeans experienced terrible wars of religion in the 1600s, which means that religious diversity can remind them of sectarian warfare rather than the robust pluralism of America, where the sects persecuted but never killed each other.

Religious establishment in Europe was a way of imposing civil peace, settling the issue by convention instead of claiming ultimate truth — as in England, where Anglicanism emerged as a political compromise rather than a theological truth.

The Europeans also battled the Muslims, so the Spanish, French and Austrians are naturally suspicious of a religious pluralism that gives Islam an equal claim that could be converted into domination in a few generations.

Politically, the European democracies emerged from centralized monarchies, often by violent revolution, or from the defeat of totalitarian regimes. They also had colonial empires and fought bloody world wars on their soil with millions of casualties — leaving them tired and quasi-pacifist, and suspicious of the strong claims of good and evil that Americans are fond of asserting.

The centralized welfare states of Europe are expressions of the desire for guaranteed social security, to which religion is irrelevant and even a danger. Culturally, the Europeans experienced radical forms of the Enlightenment from France and Germany, as well as morbid forms of post-Enlightenment existentialism and nihilism.

By comparison, the Anglo-American Enlightenment was always modestly progressive, maintaining a belief that truth will emerge from the free competition of ideas.

The overall result is that Europeans are tired and want to play it safe, so they are comfortable with lingering religious establishment and spiritual indifference. They have a deep fear of Islam exploiting religious pluralism because some Muslims have the passion for religious absolutism in a dangerous form.

It is possible that Cardinal Ratzinger underestimates the Islamic threat that Europeans sense but are paralyzed to confront head on — as was evident from the howls of protest against Italian President Silvio Berlusconi's remark that Western Christian civilization is superior to Islamic civilization. The European reaction seemed to be, "Don't tap the hornets nest!"

Q: In spite of recent hostility to Christian viewpoints in Europe, many European nations have policies on controversial moral questions — such as abortion — that are closer to the Church's teaching, than does the United States. What accounts for this phenomenon?

Kraynak: In certain respects, European policies seem closer to the social teaching of the Catholic Church; but overall, I do not think that this is true.

On issues such as the death penalty, social justice, environmentalism, and support for the United Nations and the Palestinians, Europeans sometimes sound more in tune with the Vatican than Americans. But the motivations of the Europeans and even some of their policies are radically different from the Church's teaching.

Germany, for example, has articles in its Federal Constitution that call for protecting "the natural bases of life by legislation" as well as protecting marriage and the family and allowing religious instruction in state schools — see Articles 6, 7, 20. But in reality abortion, divorce, birth control, gay marriage, stem cell research and artificial fertilization are readily available.

The most vital Catholic countries — Ireland, Poland, Spain and Italy — are in the process of changing their laws to reflect the permissive freedoms of secular society, despite opposition from the Vatican — though Ireland remains staunchly anti-abortion, while permitting divorce.

On the other hand, marriage and family life actually may be more stable in Europe than in America because European societies are more stable than America — there is less social mobility, less rootless individualism and less crime to weaken the bonds of family life.

In general, European nations are more communal or corporatist than America, and that means more limits on competitive individualism and greater social cohesion. Hence, environmental restrictions and workers' protections are more in line with Catholic teaching, as well as the virtual elimination of the death penalty and opposition to wars, like the war in Iraq, without strong U.N. approval.

But these European laws and policies are not motivated by Catholic natural law, or Christian charity, or anything particularly noble. They are motivated by the secular materialism of the social welfare state that seeks safety and security in "this world" at all costs.

In the worst cases, Europeans have lost sight of the highest human aspirations and the courage to seek them — leading them to seek a risk-free world where it is too strenuous to work hard, to marry, to have children, to go to church, to pursue high culture and even to fight for their survival.

If this goal is fully realized, Europe will go the way of the Roman Empire, with Muslim immigrants playing the role of conquering barbarians.

Q: In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII condemned the heresy of what he called "Americanism." Has the Church's perspective on the American experiment changed since Leo's time?

Kraynak: It is not entirely clear if Cardinal Ratzinger's cautious endorsement of the American model reflects a change of attitude about the American experiment since Pope Leo XIII.

That is partly because Leo's condemnation of Americanism was not a rejection of American democracy or religious liberty per se — which he said could be acceptable under certain circumstances. Leo defined Americanism as the tendency to trim the Catholic faith to fit the fashions of the time — something that today is called cafeteria Catholicism or progressive Catholicism.

I think Cardinal Ratzinger is fully aware that Americanism in Leo's sense is still present in America and in every other modern democracy.

One can even trace the devastating sex-abuse scandals in America to this tendency. They were caused by seminaries that let in the sexual revolution of the 1960s under the belief that the Church's teaching on sexual ethics was outdated and by bishops who lost confidence in their authority to discipline and punish abusive priests.

I do not think that Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II have any illusions that Americanism in this sense has disappeared. Nor are they uncritical of many features of American society — such as consumerism, inequalities of wealth, Roe v. Wade and American unilateralism.

So, Pope Leo XIII was not rejecting the American model of democracy in all cases, and Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II are not endorsing it wholeheartedly, either.

What may be new is an acceptance of the American principles of disestablishment, God-given natural rights, and religious pluralism as the best arrangement for Christianity in the future. There is also a sense that the future lies in Africa and Asia, for totally different reasons.

The Church, after all, has always distinguished the Two Cities — the city of God and the earthly city — and held that the eternal truths of the spiritual and moral realm are compatible with changing prudential judgments in the temporal and political realm.

In the present circumstances, the newer American model looks comparatively better than the older European one; but the American model also has weaknesses that may lead it down the path of Europe and Canada.

In that case, we will have to devise different strategies for spiritual renewal amidst a variety of hostile forces — a situation that will look a lot like the early Church and that will require similar kinds of martyrs, saints, and heroes to begin rebuilding the city of God on earth. ZE05032621

Part 3

Robert Kraynak on Catholicism and Americanism

HAMILTON, New York, 27 MARCH 2005 (ZENIT)

Catholicism in the United States is in tension with both the anti-papist theology of original Calvinism and the social forces of democracy that are independent of Calvinism.

So says Robert Kraynak, professor of political science at Colgate University and author of "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World" (Notre Dame).

Kraynak shared with ZENIT how, despite tensions, Catholics have contributed to the vitality of American democracy by keeping alive the natural law tradition of the American founding that most Protestants never fully appreciated and that modern skeptics now denigrate.

Part 2 of this interview appeared Saturday.

Q: What role did Catholics such as Charles Carroll play at the American founding? How have Catholics such as Orestes Brownson, John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Michael Novak contributed to the continuing vitality of American democracy?

Kraynak: Despite the tensions mentioned above, most Catholics have a deep love for America. The anti-Catholicism of Protestant America did not prevent Catholic immigrants from Europe and Latin America from feeling gratitude to America for its economic opportunities and religious liberty, even if meant living in separate Catholic ghettos or neighborhoods.

In fact, many Catholic leaders and intellectuals eventually came to believe in an essential harmony of Catholicism and Americanism.

Charles Carroll, for example, was a member of a prominent Catholic family in Maryland and also a signer of the Declaration of Independence who became a personal friend of George Washington.

Orestes Brownson was a lively 19th-century intellectual who converted to Catholicism. In his book, "The American Republic," he argued for the unity of the republic based on a higher law that was more fundamental than a social contract of the states.

Likewise, John Courtney Murray argued in the 20th century that the American experiment in self-government is based on the higher law of the Declaration of Independence — on God-given natural rights that find their fullest expression in Catholic natural law and its teaching about the dignity of the human person.

Michael Novak follows in Murray's footsteps, arguing that Catholic natural law is the true basis of America's "democratic capitalism" with its voluntary associations of free persons.

I think these Catholics have contributed to the vitality of American democracy by keeping alive the natural law tradition of the American founding that most Protestants never fully appreciated and that modern skeptics now denigrate.

At the same time, Catholics have insisted that the natural law tradition of America must go beyond its Enlightenment roots in Lockean liberalism and be supplemented by the natural law teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas which directs freedom to the higher ends of virtue and the common good.

The split among Catholics is whether the elevation of American natural law to Thomistic natural law is easy or hard. The figures mentioned in this question think that the fit is relatively smooth and harmonious, while others think that inherent tensions between Catholicism and Americanism mean that the best that one can achieve is a prudent alliance.

Q: Francis Cardinal George has said that the United States' cultural and political heritage is "Calvinist" in orientation and that there is a tension between Catholicism and the American Experiment. Is this an accurate view from your perspective?

Kraynak: The relation between Catholicism and Americanism is a complicated story, although it usually boils down to two schools of thought. One school views the relation as inherently harmonious, the other sees inherent tensions.

The school of "harmony" is very popular and includes influential figures such as John Courtney Murray. The school of "disharmony," however, is gaining adherents and includes Francis Cardinal George, David Schindler of Communio and many traditional Catholics.

While I lean to the second school, I disagree with Cardinal George about the causes of the inherent tensions. He dislikes the competitive individualism of America because it seems incompatible with Catholic notions of solidarity and the common good, and he rejects a consumer-entertainment culture that trivializes spiritual life. He traces these tendencies to the "secularized Calvinism" of America.

Certainly, Calvinism is a crucial part of American history because the early Puritans were Calvinists, and their theology was intensely anti-Catholic — many Puritans viewed the Pope as the Antichrist.

But Calvinism is not the best explanation for the social trends that disturb Cardinal George because Calvinism, even in its secularized forms, is not especially individualistic or materialistic. The Puritans favored a theocratic Christian society that emphasized America's national covenant with God — a New Israel — and the rule of the "visible Saints" — God's predestined elect.

Cardinal George seems to equate Calvinism with Max Weber's "Protestant work ethic" in order to explain America's obsession with competitive individualism, economic success and materialism.

But these features are not so much products of Calvinism as of modern democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville shows in "Democracy in America."

In fact, Tocqueville praises the Puritans for creating strong local communities, and he traces the weakening of Puritan communalism to the democratic idea of "equality of condition" — which causes Americans to seek upward mobility through economic competition and to withdraw from public into private life.

I agree with Tocqueville in seeing individualism and materialism as products of the mass culture of democracy, which means Catholicism is in tension with both the anti-papist theology of original Calvinism and the social forces of democracy that are independent of Calvinism.

Q: The religion clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution have been celebrated as the reason that religious activity flourishes in the United States. However, recent Supreme Court decisions based on these clauses have greatly limited public religious practices. Could these clauses do more to hinder religious expression than allow it to flourish?

Kraynak: The religion clauses of the First Amendment make two claims — that Congress cannot make laws "respecting the establishment of religion" and that Congress cannot prohibit "the free exercise" of religion.

Most of the drafters and ratifiers of this amendment understood the two claims to be complementary: Congress could not establish a national church in America — such as the Church of England — so that religion could be freely exercised by the separate states, local communities and individuals according to their consciences.

This allowed public roles for religion in state and local governments, in public schools, in expressions by magistrates, military chaplains and even by judicial personnel — thus "In God We Trust" has been used on currencies and in courtrooms without causing First Amendment challenges.

The American founders were also friendly to religion in general because they believed that rights were God-given and republics needed civil religion to promote virtue in addition to rights. This view of the First Amendment has been called "benevolent accommodation" by the Catholic legal scholar Christopher Wolfe.

It prevailed in American legal history for the first 160 years of the republic, but the courts have chipped away at it in the last 50 years — although they have not been entirely consistent in their decisions.

In 1947, the Supreme Court severely limited the separate states from promoting religion by "incorporating" the First Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment. Prayers in public schools were also ruled unconstitutional in 1963, but the Supreme Court has allowed Nativity scenes in public parks and seems reluctant to touch the Pledge of Allegiance's words "one nation under God."

Despite these accommodations, the dominant tendency of judges, lawyers and intellectuals of the "elite culture" is to view the First and Fourteenth Amendments as virtual bans on religion in public life, erecting a high wall of separation between church and state.

This is opposed by most Americans who still believe in the "benevolent accommodation" of the Founding Fathers — a case where the people are much wiser than the educated intellectuals.

Unfortunately, the decadence of the intellectual classes — and thus of judges — is probably inevitable; but the American people are healthier and more reluctant to push personal rights to extremes. My hope is that the will of the people — the "red states" of America — will prevail in the long run and will even encourage the educated intellectuals to rethink their position.

Q: What role should religion play in a modern democracy, and how should Christians apply their faith to the problems of public policy in a modern democratic society?

Kraynak: The primary role of the Church and indeed of all Christians today is to remind people that there is a higher realm than politics and economics.

The modern age of democracy tends to deny spiritual transcendence and to create a one-dimensional world where activism in politics, careers, material consumption, sports and entertainment occupy all of our time and energy.

Such activism even distorts the Christian faith by emphasizing social justice over holiness, sacramental life, contemplative prayer and monasticism. The most important "policy" of Christians is to remind themselves and others that spiritual life directed toward eternity is more important than temporal life.

In other words, we need to recover the distinction between the Two Cities — the city of God and the earthly city — and to live as citizens of two worlds rather than of this world alone.

The second point to remember is that even in the earthly city — whose goal is the temporal common good — Christianity permits a variety of legitimate regimes. We tend to assume that democracy is the sole legitimate regime consistent with Christian ideas of human dignity and universal love. And compared to totalitarianism or dictatorship, even a degraded democracy is a good regime.

Better still is a constitutional democracy under God that does not marginalize religion and that cultivates civic virtues as well as personal freedom.

But even the best democracy is hostile to the principle of hierarchy and tends to level the distinction between higher and lower goods; these tendencies undermine the structure of the Catholic Church as well as the proper order of the soul by treating all lifestyles as equal.

Democracy also promotes popular culture that glorifies the tastes of the masses, mostly adolescents, and has a perverse effect on intellectual elites, who lose confidence in high culture and then become subversive agents of cultural decadence.

Thus, regimes combining hierarchical and democratic structures are better for the temporal realm than pure democracy. In the present age, we need to respect the will of the people where it is healthy and re-educate the decadent intellectuals to respect the true hierarchy of being.

Third, Christians need to pursue policies in their democratic societies that follow the natural moral law in regard to family life as well as in regard to the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable.

We need laws protecting marriage as a union between a man and a woman, as well as pro-life legislation protecting the unborn. And we need laws that creatively help the chronically poor and under-insured to attain a decent standard of living without undue dependence on the welfare state.

All of these policies together make up the temporal common good that requires applying natural law with prudence — the greatest of the political virtues.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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